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Day of Prayer: Our way or the highway?

By Peggy Fletcher Stack, The Salt Lake Tribune , April 27, 2007

Next week's National Day of Prayer was once a symbol of American unity and faith in God that transcended boundaries.

In recent years, though, the decades-old tradition has become mired in divisions.

Across the nation, most celebrations are organized by and for evangelical Christians, with others choosing to host alternative services. Believers from Muncie, Ind., to Oklahoma City to Troy, Mich., and Salt Lake City have added more inclusive events, with participation across the spiritual spectrum.

The holiday began in 1775 when the Continental Congress asked Americans to pray for guidance as it was trying to birth a nation. Abraham Lincoln called for a day of "humiliation, fasting and prayer" in 1863. Nearly a century later, Harry Truman made it an annual event, and in 1988, Ronald Reagan set aside the first Thursday in May so citizens could join in worship across all religious boundaries.

That changed in the 1990s when the National Day of Prayer Committee established a task force to help coordinate activities across the country and connected it with Colorado's Focus on the Family. The conservative group, led by James Dobson, took charge of the day, then insisted that all participants adhere to its "Judeo-Christian" theological tenets. A participant must "be an evangelical Christian who has a personal relationship with Christ . . . and acknowledge that I am working for the Lord Jesus Christ and the furthering of his work on Earth.

Three years ago, the task force, now led by Dobson's wife, Shirley, caused an uproar in Utah by saying that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Seventh-day Adventists, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus would not be allowed to pray at any of the services it sponsors.

The exclusions still apply, which is why Chaplain Linda Walton has helped organize an alternative service for National Prayer Day at the Provo LDS Tabernacle with LDS Apostle Jeffrey Holland as the keynote speaker. A Muslim imam will read from the Quran, a Jewish rabbi will pray, and Catholics, Protestants and other members of the Utah Valley Ministerial Association will participate.

Some faiths do not say traditional prayers but may meditate on deity, Walton says. "Some will stand up, hold their arms up, lay on their bellies, whatever. We are going to continue to support everyone's ability to do that."

Walton, a Seventh-day Adventist, has been helping with this kind of interfaith prayer service for a decade. Mormons have been included among the organizers, but this is the first time it's been in an LDS setting with a high-ranking LDS official speaking.

"We've rotated it around to all different denominations," she says. "It's time for the LDS to have their turn."

The Rev. Gregory Johnson of Standing Together, a joint ministry of Utah evangelical clergy, has no problem with the alternative service - and may even attend - but he defends the task force's approach.

"Our events are led by Evangelicals, but the public is welcome," says Johnson, who coordinated several evangelical-only services in Orem and Salt Lake City. "We have no desire to offend or hurt people's feelings, but it's important to pray with others who share the idea of who God is."

By most measures, the National Day of Prayer Task Force's efforts have been successful.

In 2005, it claimed more than 50,000 "prayer events" nationwide and had an annual budget in excess of $2 million, according to a report by the Texas Freedom Network, a religious liberties watchdog group in Austin.

It has hardly achieved national unity.

"They've hijacked what was supposed to be an opportunity for all Americans of all faiths to pray for the country," says Dan Quinn, communications director for the Texas Freedom Network. "In a time of crisis that we are in right now, wouldn't it be better to ask for guidance on how to pull Americans of all faiths together?"

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